How Did the Aztecs Build and Control Their Empire?

How Did the Aztecs Build and Control Their Empire?

The Aztec Empire was a group of allied but ethnically different city-states that lived in central Mexico and controlled much of Central America from the 12th century AD until the Spanish conquest of the 15th century.

The Aztecs began to build their political base by forming marriage alliances with ruling families in other city states. They developed into fearsome warriors and deft negotiators. The Aztecs began to consolidate their political power in the late 1300s and early 1400s.

The Triple Alliance was formed in 1428 when the Aztec ruler Itzcoatl formed alliances with the nearby cities of Tlacopan and Texcoco. Together they controlled most of Mexico between 1430 and 1521 and ruled until the Spanish arrived in 1519. 

The capital of the Aztecs was Tenochtitlan-Tlatlelco, what is today Mexico City, and the extent of their empire covered nearly all of what is today Mexico. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the capital was a cosmopolitan city, with different ethnic groups from all over Mexico. The state language was Nahuatl and written documentation was preserved on barkcloth scrolls (most of which were destroyed by the Spaniards). 

How Did The Aztecs Rule Their Empire?

The Aztec empire consisted of an emperor ruling city-states, law, and the main capital city-state of the government Tenochtitlan. 

The Aztec government was comparable to a monarchy in that it is ruled by an Emperor or King. Their king was known as Huey Tlatoani. The Huey Tlatoani was the land’s supreme power. They believed he was chosen by the gods and had divine authority to govern. He chose when to go to war and how much tribute the Aztecs would get from the territories he governed. 

When one emperor died, a committee of high-ranking nobles picked a new emperor. The incoming emperor was almost usually related to the former emperor, although not necessarily his son. They sometimes picked a sibling they thought would make an excellent leader.

Aztec city-states formed the Aztec Empire. Each city-state had a major metropolis in the middle that governed the region. The Aztec Emperor did not interfere with the city-states’ rule for the most part. He demanded that each city-state pay a tribute to him. The city-state remained largely autonomous under Aztec control as long as the payment was paid.

The Aztecs had a rather complex legal system. There were several laws in place, including those prohibiting stealing, murder, intoxication, and property destruction. Guilt and punishment were determined by a system of courts and judges. They had courts at various levels, all the way up to a supreme court. If citizens disagreed with a judge’s decision, they may appeal to a higher court.

The Aztec government was centered in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The emperor, as well as the bulk of the nobility, resided here. Tenochtitlan is estimated to have had a population of 200,000 people at its height under Montezuma II.

What Made The Aztecs Rich?

The majority of the Aztecs’ wealth came from trade and taxation. The Aztecs imposed taxes in the form of merchandise on every region they conquered.

The Aztec Empire’s economy was based on trade. Pochteca were Aztec merchants who traveled throughout Mesoamerica, carrying their wares on their backs.

Cloth, garden produce, food animals, obsidian blades and tools, medicines, wood, leather, furs and animal skins, precious metals, jewels, and ceramics were all sold, as they were at most regional marketplaces.

The empire’s primary sources of revenue were tribute and taxes. The conquered lands paid tribute to the monarch, while the Aztec people paid taxes (except priests, nobles, minors, orphans, invalids, and beggars). Merchants were taxed on the products they sold, craftsmen were taxed on the value of their services, and barrios were taxed on the crops they grew. Failure to pay taxes was punished by enslavement or property seizure.

In Aztec civilization, there were rich and poor people. The most significant social divide was between nobility and commoners. Nobles controlled the government, owned most of the land, and were extremely rich.

What Made The Aztecs So Powerful?

The Aztecs became very powerful over time due to their vast empire and warrior weaponry among the society. 

Surprisingly, the Aztecs are not a single ethnic group, but rather a collection of up to 17 ethnic groupings! Tenochtitlan (eventually to become Mexico City) was the only city established by the Mexica people in the beginning. They then established an alliance with two additional cities, Tlacopan and Texcoco (Tetzcoco) (these three cities are shown as yellow dots on the map above). 

The goal of the Triple Alliance was to control the Valley of Mexico, then expand by capturing neighboring towns. As a result, it was a country made up of city-states, similar to Venice and other countries.

Warriors were vital to Aztec culture and existence. An Aztec boy would be given two warrior emblems at birth. In his left hand, he’d have a shield, while in his right, he’d hold an arrow. The umbilical cord, shield, and arrow of the newly born boy would be carried to a battlefield and buried by a legendary warrior after a short ceremony. 

These components would represent a warrior’s ascension. Each shield and arrow would be custom-made for that child and would be modeled after his family and gods. The Aztecs valued military culture, as seen by their birth ceremonies.

What Was The Greatest Weakness Of The Aztec Empire?

The greatest weakness the Aztec empire had suffered from was possibly its severe practice of human sacrifices alongside its strategic geographical location that lacked earthly stability. The Aztecs’ taste for gore, as shown by mass sacrifices of huge groups of people and weaponry capable of maiming adversaries into incapacity, has instilled dread and loathing among people and governments beyond the empire. 

The iron-wielding kingdom of Tarasca a.k.a. Tzintzuntzan to the west, nomadic desert tribes to the north, the populous yet besieged city-state confederation of Tlaxcala to the near east, and even several Mayan city-states to the far east and south were not spared from the Aztec imperial class’s greedy eyes.

Challenging topographical conditions inside the empire, including mountains, volcanoes, and deserts, hampered its expansion, particularly in the north. Furthermore, the Aztec Empire’s troops were accustomed to traveling across mountainous regions and nearby valleys and were not fond of marching across flat plains astride the sea, which resulted in their failure to capture the Mayan civilization despite just bordering it.


In less than a century, the Aztecs established an empire in what is today known as central Mexico. It came to an abrupt end with the advent of the Spanish conquistadors.  Without batting an eye on the importance and fame of the Aztec empire to this very day, one would confidently say that the Aztecs deserve the recognition that they have gotten throughout all these years.